FALLING AWAKE | Wherever I go, here we are

I’m not unlike many professional artists. My work means piecing together a career from teaching, publishing, speaking fees, grants, honorariums, and applying to choreograph in far away places, which satisfies my addiction to traveling, and my love of dancing. Dancers are my mobile community. Wherever I go, here we are. 

I’m in KeriKeri, New Zealand, first studio on a North Island tour. 

And it’s not every day that I get to teach Polynesians, so, quickly as possible, I’m going to write this and press SEND. My lodging doesn’t have internet — possibly what I like best about it — so I’m sitting outside a private home, pilfering the wireless. Luckily, it’s easy to decide who to write about: Talia (tah LEE ah). 

Talia walked into the studio slowly, but I didn’t get the feeling it was because she is bigger than most people, only that she comes from a humid place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and slowly is just how people move due to the heat.

“I know nothing about your kind of dancing,” she said, “I worry I make fool of myself.” But as soon as she started swaying back and forth, moving her hips in a circular motion, it didn’t take long to see how there is nothing slow about her dancing. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite so big (she had to come in the door sideways) who is as light on her feet.

“Hula is an amazing dance form,” I whispered to the director.

“We have a lot of Samoan dancers,” he said. “We’ve had our floor reinforced.” 

I liked Talia right away. When I think more about why, I consider all the people who are moving to Seattle lately with lots of money and, oftentimes, airs to match. But Talia has the nature of someone who’s had to work physically hard to earn her place in the world, and I can identify with that. 

“I got the sugar,” is how she put it, meaning she is diabetic and suffering from peripheral edema caused by bad diet and excessive salt and/or sugar intake. A lot of Polynesians, I’ve found, have a hard time giving up Spam for whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. 

I’m fascinated by Talia’s jet black braid winding into a bun on top of her head; by her long skirts in all colors of the rainbow worn by people back home in a parade maybe, but not out and about, not in my neighborhood anyway ... except maybe in Fremont; by the way she places her hand in front of her mouth as if trying to hide her laughter because she naturally wants to laugh off her errors more than the rest of us. What she does next is rub one hand over her stomach while the other rubs the small of her back, as if she is literally trying to rub out the mistake. It’s the funniest thing. 

We talked about her sons who went to America to serve in the military; how she had her first baby at 15, nine others after. Nine! “Catholic, that’s why,” she said.

While the director is speaking, Talia says softly, “Fa’afafine,” raising her eyebrows. Later, she explained how Samoan’s don’t believe there is any such thing as “homosexual.” Fa’afafine is simply a third gender, well accepted and “celebrated in my culture,” she said, just as a stripe of sunlight washed over the tattoo of a gecko slithering up her thigh. 

No one could have choreographed the effect any better.

MARY LOU SANELLI is a poet, speaker and author of nonfiction. Her collection of essays, “A Woman Writing,” is available from Aequitas Books. She can be reached at www.marylousanelli.com